February 17, 2015
Profile: Ahmad Umar (Abu Ubaidah)
This piece is part of a series of al Shabaab leadership profiles.
Ahmad Umar, also known as Abu Ubaidah, is the emir of al Shabaab. Al Shabaab spokesman Ahmed Abdi aw Mohamed announced Umar as the group’s leader on September 6, 2014, after a September 1 U.S. airstrike killed former al Shabaab emir Ahmed Abdi Godane. Umar was part of Godane’s inner circle at the time of Godane’s death. The United Nations subjected Umar to sanctions pursuant to paragraph 8 of UN Security Council Resolution 1844 on September 24, 2014. Additionally, Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) authorized a $2-million award for information leading to the killing or capture of Umar on September 27, 2014.
Umar is in his forties or fifties and is from the Somali town of Luq in Gedo region near the Ethiopian border. He is a member of the minority Dir clan.
Umar joined the al Ittihad al Islamiya and the Ras Kamboni Brigade in 1996. It was during this time that he received a religious education and learned to read and write both Arabic and Somali. Umar ran a Qur’anic school in Kismayo in Lower Jubba region during 2000. Umar became a low-ranking officer in the Islamic Courts Union by 2006 and earned a reputation as a brutal punisher of non-Muslims.
Umar joined al Shabaab in 2007 and began working with the group’s late military commander Aden Hashi Farah Ayro. Umar became al Shabaab leader Godane’s assistant in 2008 after Ayro’s death and was promoted to be al Shabaab’s deputy governor of Lower Jubba region, which was under al Shabaab’s control, the same year. On June 29, 2009, Umar became al Shabaab’s governor of Bay and Bakool regions, where he enforced a strict interpretation of shari’a.Umar, known during his time as governor as Mahad Omar Abdikarim, also mandated strict rules for humanitarian organizations operating in Bay and Bakool and banned any sign of Western culture. He was a public figure for al Shabaab and participated in a major al Shabaab fundraising event in August 2009 along with then-al Shabaab deputy governor for Gedo region, Ma’alin Osman, and governor for Hiraan region, Abukar Ali Aden. Umar also hosted a January 2011 meeting with local businessmen to negotiate funding for al Shabaab’s fighters and attended a ceremony with al Shabaab leaders Sheikh Mukhtar Robow and Fuad Mohamed Qalaf Shongole in March 2011. Clan politics may have influenced Umar’s decision-making when he was al Shabaab’s governor of Bay and Bakool regions. A rift between Umar and his deputy Ma’alim Abdullahi Gab, reportedly rooted in clan politics, appeared in August 2011 when Umar dismissed Gab. Godane appointed Umar as a transitional military commander of Bay, Bakool, and Gedo regions in January 2012 after Godane fired former military commander Moalim Jinaw.
Godane promoted Umar to be his advisor in November 2013. Umar probably played a pivotal role in Godane’s internal purge of the group’s foreign fighters in 2012-2013 and received credit for leading the group that tracked down and killed the American al Shabaab member, Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansur al Amriki. Umar accepted a position in 2014 prior to his appointment as emir in al Shabaab’s “Interior Maktab (Department)” in which he oversaw the group’s domestic activity.
Conflicting reports detail the process of Umar’s appointment to emir. It is not clear whether Godane had a determined successor or al Shabaab’s leadership chose Umar. Al Shabaab sources report a unanimous decision among the group’s leaders. Other sources suggest that not all senior leaders may have been present during the decision-making process due to security precautions that would have precluded gathering in a single location.
Umar adheres to takfiri ideology like his predecessor Godane. Umar’s position in Godane’s inner circle makes it likely he shared Godane’s vision for al Shabaab, centered on the rejection of Somali nationalist goals and an understanding of the group’s efforts in Somalia as just one front in al Qaeda’s global jihad.